Propelling UK subsea innovation

January 5, 2018

Elaine Maslin profiles subsea organization National Subsea Research Initiative (NSRI)  and its current work as it prepares for a change in leadership (first published in the January 2018 OE, access full issue here).  

Since its launch in 2014, the NSRI, the technology arm of industry-body Subsea UK, has been a driving force in subsea technology development, not least in the small pools space. 

Heading the organization is Gordon Drummond – who will return to his full time day job as engineering manager at Subsea 7 this month (January 2018) – aided by a board led by Peter Blake, subsea systems manager for the Chevron Energy Technology Company. With Subsea Expo, organized by Subsea UK, on the agenda next month (February 7-9, at Aberdeen Exhibition and Conference Centre, Scotland), OE caught up with the pair on what the NSRI has been doing these past three years. 

But first…

NSRI is in fact the new form of an organization with an almost identical name, the National Subsea Research Institute, which was established in 2009, and led by the University of Aberdeen. Its aim was to create a focus for the development of subsea technology and expertise, linked to academic research. In 2013, Subsea 7 technology director John Mair saw the organization’s potential and wanted to bring new life to it, shifting the emphasis from academic research to being an industry-led, for industry initiative. By 2014, Gordon Drummond, engineering manager at Subsea 7, had been installed as NSRI project director, on a three-year secondment, with Peter Blake as chairman, leading an advisory board. 

Small pools

Small pools was picked as the first NSRI challenge. The timing was good, as small pools had been highlighted by the UK’s Technology Leadership Board as a theme for MER UK (Maximizing Economic Resources). For NRSI, it was a good fit – a national industrial challenge, which played into the subsea space. 

Small pools are something of a conundrum. It’s estimated that there is 3 billion boe locked up in known small pools on the UK Continental Shelf. Part of the challenge is having technologies to economically develop them. The other part is commercial and about mindsets. They’re not a big enough prize for the larger companies, but smaller companies don’t, perhaps, have the wherewithal to tackle them, which means this resource falls between two commercial models. There may be a need for multi-company collaboration to “pool” resource to create a large enough resource for development. 

Technology will play a key role, however. Blake says that’s what the NSRI has tackled, starting with a hackathon, followed by workshops addressing topics such as subsea storage, predictive monitoring and digital oilfield technologies (OE: December 2015 & August 2016).

“You will see up-take of these technologies, in five years’ time. The big thing NSRI did was start the debate,” — Peter Blake, pictured right. 

Handing on the baton

The NSRI’s work in this space has helped give exposure to the potential in small pools, resulting in it being a focus for the Oil & Gas Authority, Oil & Gas UK, through its Efficiency Task Force, which looked at subsea tieback concepts (OE: Efficiency cubed, April 2017), and now the Oil & Gas Technology Centre, which is largely following the framework for technology development set out by the NSRI, since taking on small pools as a challenge earlier this year. 

There’s not a rush to develop small pools, yet, however. It takes time to build the technology and the environment, says Blake, who worked on Deepstar 25 years ago. 

“At the time, there wasn’t really any deepwater development in the US Gulf of Mexico. Twenty-five years later there is stacks of it. Deepstar was partly accountable for that,” he says.

It wasn’t so much about the technology that finally made deepwater viable, and the same is true of small pools, Blake adds, although he says that time is not on their side, with infrastructure now starting to be removed. “You will see up-take of these technologies, in five years’ time. The big thing NSRI did was start the debate,” he says. It showed that the technology is possible, the commercial side, the mindset, needs to catch up.

Subsea springboard

NSRI has been busy in other areas, however. Early on, it launched Developer Days (now Technology Springboard), which put technology developers in front of buyers (access to which many find challenging), and its Matchmaker tool – an online “dating” service – to connect technology firms with universities and test centers with expertise relevant to their technology. 

Through these events, technology developers like Aberdeenshire-based Exnics have been given a foot in the door. Since presenting at the first Developer Day, Exnics, for example, got an offshore trial of its hot rings technology with EnQuest on the Scolty-Crathes subsea tieback. We’ve been following Exnics progress in OE this year (OE: Circular energy, November 2017). Another firm, EC-OG, has been working with Shell on its subsea power hub concept. 

PIctured left, Gordon Drummond.

Mapping renewables

Meanwhile, with the help of two interns, seconded from engineering group Wood, work also got underway mapping out the subsea challenges in offshore renewables and subsea mining, supported by events, and helping to build the Matchmaker database. Last year, another intern took over and is focusing on wave and tidal energy opportunities. 

Other events, including days highlighting expert skills available in academia, in materials and subsea inspection, as well as test facilities and funding routes, have also been held. 

The dream, however, is to create a subsea center of excellence, which fully links the world leading UK industry, with academia, qualification and testing and deployment opportunities across the subsea sector. It would comprise an underwater test center, a technology incubator and a digital virtual community. Scottish Enterprise has been involved in assessing the testing and development center potential, which could involve building a dummy offshore asset, which could be used for testing, to get around operators not wanting to test technologies on live wells. 

“That’s one of the big barriers, to get in field and getting technology wet,” Drummond, pictured above, left, says. Creating a subsea center of excellence would be the ultimate end goal, Blake says, even if it did mean that the work of the NSRI was complete. 

Meanwhile, the next three years, under a new project manager, is set to focus more on diversification; looking at other sectors the NSRI has not tapped fully into yet, as well as areas within oil and gas that haven’t been looked at yet, such as decommissioning. Changes have already been made to the board to reflect these wider interests. The NSRI also hopes to add more academic input from outside Scotland and to help map more global opportunities for the supply chain. 

Read more

Cutting the umbilical

Tanked up - subsea storage 

Subsea Expo 

With the theme ‘Facing the Future’, Subsea Expo 2018, supported by OE, will look at what must be done to continue to reinvent the industry in a new reality. Key industry topics this year will include global markets, ROV developments, subsea innovation and offshore renewables. The event returns 7-9 February 2018 at the AECC in Aberdeen.

During Subsea Expo, the 2018 Subsea UK Awards will be presented. Find out who the finalists are here.

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